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Millennial Fever

[whitespace] short picture description A fantastic fin-de-siècle: Craziness and conflict rule supreme in Codrescu's Messiah

Andrei Codrescu's Messiah takes on a bevy of would-be saviors

By Christine Brenneman

If current trends in literature tend toward exploring the minutiae of ordinary people's everyday lives, Andrei Codrescu's new novel, Messiah, goes decidedly against the grain. Disdaining this "new realism" in fiction, Codrescu writes a tale of fantastic and imaginative proportions concerning the end of the world, crises in faith, technology and the possibility of a savior in our midst.

Messiah attacks the giant beast of our collective pre-millennial angst, taking the reader on a wild journey from December 1999 to February 2000. The author addresses questions haunting everyone from the religious fanatics to regular paranoiacs: will New Year's 1999 and the dawning of a new millennium be a superparty or should we expect the apocalypse, Armageddon even?

In the midst of this swirling madness exist Codrescu's beloved main characters: Felicity Odille Lejeune, an orphan interested in counterculture and cyberspace living in New Orleans; and Andrea, an orphan from Sarajevo who survived a Serbian concentration camp. From the beginning, it seems clear that their lives will converge eventually in a meaningful way. Until that time, Felicity struggles with her sexuality and her burgeoning career as a private eye, tackling the difficult task of reclaiming money she believes a greedy televangelist stole from her family. Mysteriously appearing in Jerusalem, the sensuous Andrea finds shelter in a convent full of visiting religious scholars and eventually meets an ex-boyfriend of Felicity's, Ben. After a few brief and suffocating brushes with fame, Andrea makes her way to New Orleans with the help of Ben. In the beginning of the tale, both women are incomplete souls, in search of that something to make them feel whole. Sure enough, when they finally meet in New Orleans, each realizes that she has met the missing half. Together, they possess strong magical powers and can fend off almost any evil.

One such evil is the most hatefully and realistically rendered character in the book: Reverend Jeremy "Elvis" Mullin. He heads up a televangelist empire that makes Jim and Tammy Faye Baker look utterly benign. Mullin steals money from his followers, brainwashes them, puts them to work on computers, has thugs keep everyone in line and--in his spare time--makes disturbing visits to underage prostitutes.

Meanwhile, there are various subplots multiplying with each chapter as the book progresses. These involve Felicity's seemingly good uncle, several religious academics and the newly embodied spirits of Great Minds from the past who've come to help in the passing to a new millennium. Unfortunately, the overly conspiratorial nature of her omnipotent Uncle and the spirits wear on the reader; keeping all these storylines straight becomes quite a challenge.

However, the novel possesses Codrescu's characteristically discerning eye for what's important and lasting in the world around him. His apparent love for youth culture permeates the tale. Both main characters--Felicity and Andrea--are young women whose incredible insights and power, ability to embrace technology and believe the unbelievable makes them perfect for saving the world. Codrescu also sustains the belief that as a matter of ecology and balance, the next Messiah must be a woman. Likewise, the "Shades" or street kids play the role of benevolent observers and joyful innocents completely at home in the chaos of the coming millennium. As Codrescu says, "These kids spearhead a new way of thinking; they're interested in technology and mysticism and that's a combination that haunts my work."

In keeping with this sentiment, the Internet and computers are central to Codrescu's vision of the future. In his world, great minds from throughout history are able to communicate with people in the present via the Internet. Virtual reality exists as a place for spirits, angels and humans. Codrescu sees these forces as "ubiquitous and unavoidable; they are the air we breathe. We look for our signals and cues in the media. When the Internet came along it was possible for everyone to become a broadcaster."

Messiah is the best kind of escapist literature: it takes the reader into a parallel universe of bizarre and chimerical--but not altogether impossible--happenings. New Orleans is a real city and the millennium is fast approaching with all its accompanying fears. Thanks to Codrescu, we can live through it vicariously but come out unscathed.

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From the March 15, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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